Rettl 1868

Austria's Highland Fling

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Small family firms make up the backbone of the Austrian and German economies.

  • Facts


    • Rettl 1868, founded in that year, was originally the purveyor of military uniforms to the Court of Austria-Hungary.
    • Since 1991, it has been better known for its kilt-like plaid outfits that can cost thousands of euros.
    • The firm, based in Villach, Austria, is run by eccentric 56-year-old Thomas Rettl and his wife Nathaly.
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RT-w2014-1527-Edit@Simone Attisani
Even women wear kilts in Austria. Source: Rettl

Artfully designed lingerie for the wedding night, baroque pleasure palaces for the celebration, a dream in white for the bride – there is no accounting for taste at Austria’s largest wedding fair. If it’s tacky or ribald, no problem.

Fitting in perfectly at the show at the Vienna fairgrounds, then, is a fashion firm that focuses on the weird and unusual. Rettl 1868, based in Villach in southern Austria, focuses on traditional costume fashion with no particular concern for actual tradition.

“It all began over 30 years ago with the kilt,” says owner Thomas Rettl.

He is obviously wearing one of his company’s own heavy-woolen mock-Scottish garments to the event. Mr. Rettl is a fine figure of a man, a real man as they would say in Austria. His magnificent head of hair is plaited into a braid. He chats with his customers in a broad Carinthian dialect.

The Austrian looks a little like a Highlander from Scotland. “It all began with the Highland games in Carinthia. I combined the traditional Carinthia costume with the kilt. There had never been anything like that before,” he says.

The selection and fitting for individuals can take several hours. Customers from southern Germany often stay overnight.

But not everyone in his arch-conservative hometown liked this break with tradition. But in the end, his success proved him right. The Rettl firm, founded in 1868, is today numbered among Austria’s most exclusive fashion brands in the traditional costume segment. “I sold a couple of thousand kilts that no one really needs,” says the businessman with a laugh.

It does take a bit of courage to go out onto the street in one of his kilts. “We clothe personalities,” says the company boss, who runs the 40-employee family firm with his wife Nathaly. But thanks to Mr. Rettl, no one in southern Austria takes notice any longer when someone makes a grand appearance in a plaid Scottish kilt.

Among his customers are entertainers such as German TV personalities Thomas Gottschalk and Thomas Morgenstern, ski-race legend Franz Klammer, Scottish actor Sir Sean Connery and members of the British and Danish royal families. The financial aristocracy in his native Carinthia are also regular customers, gathering for annual kilt hikes in the Alps or the Highland golf tournament.

The entrepreneur isn’t lacking in sales talent or a sense of mission. Mr. Rettl is even contesting the Scots’ claim to plaid. As he sees it, the Celts in the Alps were already wearing plaid fabrics 2,200 years ago. So he revived the Celtic plaid, and has been having his own plaids designed and copyrighted for some time now. For example, the modern Styrian plaid combines the dark-green of the forests with the light gray of the Limestone Alps, and anthracite with the wine red of the regional vineyards.

Mr. Rettl also provides bespoke-tailoring for these unusual traditional costumes. One kilt alone requires five to six meters of cloth and is individually made for the customer. The business relies on its own shops in Villach, Klagenfurt and Graz for sales.

Thomas Rettl has been running his family's firm since 1991. Source: Rettl

Selection and fitting for individuals can take several hours. Customers from southern Germany often stay overnight. Accommodation is included free of charge with purchases of over €1,500 ($1,581) anyway. Some regular customers end up spending figures in the five-digit range.

Mr. Rettl wouldn’t furnish particulars on sales but said that revenues are in the single-digit million range. The company is profitable.

It wasn’t easy making a functioning firm out of the former Kärntner k.u.k. Uniformierungsanstalt – the purveyor of military uniforms to the Court of Austria-Hungary. When Thomas took over his parents’ operations in 1991, the firm was facing bankruptcy. It was his eccentric manner and sales talent that ultimately brought Rettl out of its existential crisis.

But the company boss has remained true to himself. Mr. Rettl, who also markets his products in five-star hotels in the Alps, like Schloss Fuschl, is foregoing further expansion. He is happy with the current manageable size of the company. “We focus on gradual growth,” he says. It is important to him that one of his five children will carry on running the family company. But that is still a ways off.


Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna. To contact the author:

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